We have been using Haloscan's comment system since the blog started. Haloscan is now upgrading to a system called Echo and charging for the service. I don't mind paying, but I don't really like the Echo system, and I don't like the mandatory change.
I have gone back to blogger comments. This has had the effect of deleting all the comments. However, I have saved them all, and I will be adding them collectively to each post. (I probably could have written a Perl script to do a bunch of this, but I just cut and pasted them by hand.) I also added in the homepage links for those of us who used that.
If anyone is interested in the technical details, I downloaded the XML file from Haloscan of all the comment. I then copied the Haloscan comments from each post into a big file. I went through the XML file, took each person with a homepage, and searched for
Name | Homepage
and replaced it with
Name |Homepage (where Name and Website are the name and website of the person). I then deleted the Haloscan references from the blog template. A simple set of instructions on how to do that is here:
I will now cut and paste the comments by hand into each post. It's a bit of a pain, but I think its the best solution.
Monday, December 28, 2009
We have been using Haloscan's comment system since the blog started. Haloscan is now upgrading to a system called Echo and charging for the service. I don't mind paying, but I don't really like the Echo system, and I don't like the mandatory change.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Guess which Jewish holiday is most like Christmas?
That's right -- Shavuot! Surprised? Don't know what Shavuot is? Read on....
Several years ago, when I was a part of the Museum Minyan of Houston's Beth Yeshurun Congregation (the largest Conservative congregation in Houston, a city of mega-churches and mega-gogues), it fell to me to give a drash on the Shabbat nearest to Christmas. Rabbi Mordecai Finley, of Los Angeles' Ohr Ha Torah, where I had belonged before moving to Houston, had given many interesting talks about Christmas in his synagogue at this time of year, and I was influenced by him to, as it were, "take Christmas on" in its own terms. Though I admit, it was with a somewhat strange feeling that I walked into my minyan on a Shabbos morning with a King James Version of the Christian Bible in my hand, and opened it up to read John 1:1, not necessarily a text with which my hearers were familiar.
Here is that very famous opening line of the 4th Gospel, the non-synoptic Gospel, the one that isn't "like the others." "In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
How might we understand this Jewishly? That's easy. Think about the traditional as well as Jewish mystical understanding of the relationship between God and the Torah (which, by the way, is a much more natural interpretation of "the Word" than thinking of a person, even a Divine person, as "the Word"). It would not be badly summarized by that line. The idea of the Torah as existing before Creation is found, for example, in the Zohar: "God looked into the Torah and created the world" (Zohar 2:161b). At www.kolel.org, an Orthodox site, one finds the sentence, "Before the universe was made, the Torah was God's companion." If we think of the story told by the Torah, we might be a little startled to realize that the founders of Judaism did not have the Torah. Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, even Moses, came to adulthood as Jews without the Torah. How could that be? For the later rabbis, the Torah must always already have been in existence. A classic example: Rashi interprets Genesis 25:27, that Jacob 'dwelled in tents,' as meaning that Jacob engaged in Torah study. Before the Torah had been given to the Jews! Because, you see, "In the beginning was the Word...."
But back to Christmas...
For Christians, the all-important next part of this story is that "the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). This is the phenomenon known as the Incarnation, and the holiday that celebrates it is Christmas.
For Jews, the next part of this story is that the Torah was given to the Jews at Sinai. And the holiday that celebrates this is...Shavuot.
For Jews, the world-historical entry of the Word into human history, into a tangible form we can see, is the Torah given to Moses at Sinai. This is Revelation, not Incarnation. Famously, at Deut. 30:12, we learn,"It is not in Heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it and do it?." We might say, it is not in Heaven any more: it is here, dwelling with us. We might even say that for Jews, "Christmas came early."
Don't let the Hanukkah/Christmas coincidence of candles and mid-winter schedule fool you. The Jewish holiday whose theological meaning is the closest parallel to Christmas is that mid-summer festival most contemporary Jews ignore: Shavuot.
(And by the way, the Christians actually 'get' this. The Christian holiday called "Pentecost" follows fifty days after Easter. Pentecost is the holiday celebrating the founding of the Church through the Holy Spirit, the third of the Divine persons of the Trinity. The Last Supper was a Passover Seder, and 49 days after the two-day Passover holiday comes...Shavuot. Check here in the spring for a posting on the relationship between Passover and Easter....)
Thursday, December 3, 2009
David Friedman has an interesting set of posts on Jewish Law and Constitutional Interpretation and And For the Real Enthusiasts in Jewish Law, A Story. He discusses some of the broad "interpretive" techniques of the Talmud and compares them to American constitutional interpretation.
There are some interesting differences between the structures of Jewish Law and Anglo-American Common law.
1. For the past 2000 years, Jewish law has lacked a hierarchical court system. There is no "Supreme Court" that has the final say in what the law is. In Talmudic times, the Sanhedrin functioned that way but it has long been abandoned. As a result, it is difficult in Jewish law to reach a final conclusive decision on what halacha is, command widespread obedience or adherence, and then move on.
2. In American law, the most recent opinions are the most authoritative. Other than a few "classics" (Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education), we lawyers want to cite the most recent cases. But in Jewish law, the oldest authorities are most authoritative. The rabbis of the mishna (~200 CE) are more authoritative than the rabbis of the gemara (~400 - 500 CE), and these are more authoritative than the medieval Rishonim (~1000 - 1500 CE), etc.
As a result, in Jewish law, a contemporary authority, no matter how great, cannot "overrule" precedent in any clear way, since the contemporary authority is necessarily less authoritative than the earlier ones. Thus, Jewish law cannot evolve by slow drift the way that American common law can.
These problems have been partially remedied in Orthodox circles by a widespread deference to certain authorities and later codifiers (e.g., Maimonides, the Shulchan Aruch). But the system -- for better or worse -- is still inherently conservative and inflexible.
Conservative Judaism has addressed this by being more flexible in both halachic interpretation and in halachic diversity (that is, by permitting multiple approaches to particular questions).
And Reform Judaism has addressed this by labeling itself, perhaps incorrectly, as a non-halachic movement.
* * *
All of this raises interesting analogies between common law systems and economic markets. Both are decentralized decision-making institutions. But the fact that Jewish law and Anglo-American common law function so differently shows the importance of structures and institutions in this sort of system. The shape and functions of a legal system depends critically on the nature and structure of courts, legal rules, lawyers, etc. And the shape and functioning of an economic system depends critically on exchange rules, property rights, banking and currency systems, etc.
Ronald Coase had made this argument -- institutions matter -- with respect to economics, and the same is true of legal systems.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
Last week, the New York Times reported on a British case, here:
For American lawyers (and Jews), the issue can be stated simply: can a Jewish high school (in this case, the Jews' Free School or JFS in North London) give preferential admissions treatment to halakhically Jewish children (that is, Jews by maternal descent or approved conversion)? The answer -- perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not -- is "no." While the school is permitted to discriminate in favor of Jews, it is not permitted, under British anti-discrimination law, to do so as a matter of "ethnicity" or "race," but only the basis of religious practice or faith. This is, of course, obviously deeply problematic for both halakhic and non-halakhic Jews -- who would more or less be unanimous, I think, in agreeing with Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, chair of the Rabbinical Council of the United Synagogue, who is quoted in the article as saying that “having a ham sandwich on the afternoon of Yom Kippur doesn’t make you less Jewish.” Of course it doesn't -- as we all know (right?), at most it makes you a BAD Jew -- but no less a Jew.
There are lots of things to say about a case like this, but I'll confine myself to one: that it points out the degree to which what purports to be a secular legal and/or non-discriminatory approach to religion in fact embeds a deeply Christian (which is to say, creedal) idea of what religion itself IS. It fails, profoundly, to acknowledge that the difference BETWEEN various Christian sects (which tends to be creedal/doctrinal -- in or out on Virgin Birth, on papal infallibility, on celibate clergy, etc.), is not structurally similar to the difference between Christianity and Judaism (at least). Christianity, as a "daughter" religion of Judaism, deliberately (as part of what we might call its "marketing campaign" to the pagan world) cast off Jewish racial/ethnic particularity in favor of a certain version of universality. It created an alternative "biology" for a new Christian Church "family," in which actual blood relationship was subordinated to other connections, and to practices (like baptism, confession, attendance at Mass -- the sacramental structure, in essence). That's all well and good, as far as it goes -- the difficulty is when this becomes the definition of religion itself, so that anything not so defined ceases to look like religion at all (and thus must be shoehorned into another, equally problematic category, like race or ethnicity).
I don't have a freestanding opinion on whether JFS should or shouldn't have admitted M, whose father is halakhically Jewish but whose mother's conversion was not recognized by the relevant authorities. As an American raised under the 1st Amendment, the readiness of British courts to interject themselves into a dispute of this type is naturally a little unnerving. But more than that, I think we ought to be deeply troubled by the idea that Judaism and Jewishness must be theorized in terms that make Christians comfortable, or relegated to the increasingly-disreputable categories (for purposes of preferential treatment) of race or ethnicity.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
I just found a link to a new blogger who is an Orthodox YU student and is also gay. He has just started blogging about his struggles with both. The blog is
(and Jewish Atheist provided the link through Chana / Curious Jew's blog).
This could be a very interesting blog. Obviously, I wish him strength and wisdom in working through his difficulties and challenges.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
XGH has a funny post about a picture of Adam and Eve from his 5 1/2 year old daughter's school. It depicted them as real people, and that bothers him a bit, although he is not sure where to go from there.
The early stories in Genesis bother a lot of people. Much ink has been spilled over the biblical accounts of creation, the garden of Eden, Noah's flood, and the Tower of Babel. To most contemporary Jews, these are obvious myths. But two religious problems follow from this position. The first is how to derive meaning from such stories. Most people view historical fact as more robust than myths in terms of religious significance. The second is a slippery slope problem: are other other more significant religious stories also myths? If creation and the flood are myths, then what about the exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mt. Sinai? And if those are myths, not history, then much of Judaism must be rethought, and some would argue abandoned.
At the other end of the spectrum, some view these stories as literal history. The problem here is that this puts such people in a perpetual state of war with most of the hard sciences, along with history, archeology, and a lot of other things. And this leads to disastrous results. There are some rabbis who have no formal training in the sciences but argue vehemently that most scientists are completely wrong and that Genesis, if properly read, gives all the answers. This position is not just difficult to maintain among most audiences, but it borders on the comical.
For all the obvious reasons, I treat these early stories as stories. They are pre-scientific attempts to answer scientific questions, and as such they should be celebrated, even if we no longer think their account is correct. But more importantly, these stories address important questions regarding the significance of things like creation, and later commentators have derived many great lessons from them. These lessons endure, regardless of the historicity of the stories. (I just reposted one of my attempts to analyze part of the creation story, drawing on both a midrash and Rashi.) There's nothing wrong with treating a story as a story.
Not that there's much comparison, but I think "The Three Little Pigs" is a great story with a good moral and practical lesson. To get back to XGH's question, if I illustrated it would draw the pigs as pigs. But I would also mention to my kids that this is a story, not a factual account of real suilline building projects.
I know that pigs lack opposable thumbs and thus cannot physically built a house out of straw or sticks, and certainly not bricks. And I know that a wolf does not have sufficient lung capacity to blow enough air at high enough velocities to blow down even a rudimentary house made out straw or sticks. But I also know that I would miss the point of the story if I focused on such questions.
[Note: the following is a slightly edited version of a post that I wrote for the now apparently defunct Sefer HaBloggadah.]
Genesis 1:11-12 covers the creation of plants. God says make some plants, and the earth makes some plants. The story is three sentences long. One might think this is all pretty simple and straightforward.
Not even close.
A midrash in Bialik's Sefer Ha Aggadah (1:2:32) picks up on one seemingly minor textual inconsistency, and a comment from Rashi picks up on a different textual inconsistency. Juxtaposing these two gives us some pretty interesting conclusions. Let's start with the Torah text, and then discuss our midrash, Rashi's comment, and what we can make of all this.
Here's the Torah:
And God said: 'Let the earth put forth grass, herb yielding seed, and fruit-tree bearing fruit after its kind, wherein is the seed thereof, upon the earth.' And it was so. And the earth brought forth grass, herb yielding seed after its kind, and tree bearing fruit, wherein is the seed thereof, after its kind; and God saw that it was good. (Gen 1:11-12)
The midrash notes one subtle textual discrepancy in this story. God said to produce "herb yielding seed" but the earth actually brought forth "herb yielding seed after its kind". (That is, the seeds from these plants would themselves grow the same kind of plant.) Here's most of the Midrash:
[T]he grasses applied to themselves an a fortiori argument, saying: If God enjoined "after its kind" upon trees, which by nature do not grow up in promiscuous miscellany, how much more does it apply to us! Immediately each grass sprouted forth after its kind . . . . Then the angel of the universe declared, "The glory of the Lords endures forever; the Lord rightly rejoices in His works!"
Grass with attitude. God says do it one way, and the grass thinks it has a better idea and does it differently.
But things gets better. Here's another textual inconsistency. God said to create "fruit-tree bearing fruit" (עֵץ פְּרִי עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי), but the earth instead brought forth "tree bearing fruit" (וְעֵץ עֹשֶׂה-פְּרִי). Our midrash skips this problem, but Rashi picks up on it. "This implies that the taste of the tree should be the same as the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth] did not do this, but rather: 'The earth sprouted forth . . . a tree producing a fruit,' but the tree itself was not a fruit."
Now the earth has attitude. God's original plan called for the entire tree -- branches, leaves, bark, everything -- to be edible. It would literally be a "fruit tree" that also bore fruit. But the earth decided it had a better idea and made regular trees instead. Rashi notes the consequences for the earth's disobedience. "Therefore, when Adam was cursed for his sin, it, [the earth] too, was punished for its sin and was [also] cursed."
This is remarkable. God issued a simple command to the earth: make some plants and trees. The grass -- after comparing itself to the trees, carefully thinking through the problem, and applying Talmudic reasoning -- decided to improve on God's plan. And then did! (And did so before it was even created. Talk about being an over-achiever.) The earth on the other hand made the opposite move. God wanted super-trees, but the earth just created regular old ordinary trees.
But the most puzzling verse of all is the transition between God's commands and the much modified implementations of these commands: "And it was so." It most certainly was not so. God got very different grass and trees than he had commanded.
So what do we make of all this?
Here's my explanation. The divine plan for creation is not static. It is dynamic and changing, and these changes even include creation's modifications of the divine plan for creation itself.
Also, it means that people have a very important role in continuing God's creation. Contrary to Dr. Pangloss's position, this is not the best of all possible worlds. We can improve things, and we should.
As many people have noted, we see this idea reflected in our shabbat blessings. We bless God for bringing forth bread from the earth. But of course God does not create bread. Nature brings grain from the earth. People then improve the grain and make the bread. And then we bless God for creating the fruit of the vine. Well, God may do that, but we are not eating grapes. We are drinking wine. And people improved the grapes to make the wine. Our blessings make no difference between the the products people make (bread, wine) and the raw materials God makes (grain, grapes), and in fact seems to confuse the two categories.
The reason for all of this, as I see it, is that the divine plan includes the potential to modify the divine plan. Grapes includes potential wine, wine includes prior grapes, bread includes prior grain, and grain includes potential bread. God and people work together, we get some pretty good stuff, and all of this is part of the divinity of all of this.
The Torah notes that we are created in the image of God. And one important idea in Judaism (and other religions; hence the Latin) is imitatio dei: imitating God. God creates and modifies, and so should we.
This process is not limited to the physical world. It applies to halacha as well. God creates law. As I have argued elsewhere, God also modifies law. And so should we. Halacha cannot be a static and unchanging set of legal rules. Instead, it is up to us to create new rules and modify the old ones as changed conditions require changes in the rule. We should not do so out of convenience or laziness, but only to promote the highest ideals of Judaism.
This enterprise, like all such enterprises, must be undertaken with seriousness and careful thought. Note the two endings to our two stories. God rejoiced when the grasses made themselves better, but he punished the earth when it made trees that were worse. We should change things when we need to, but we need to try very hard to get it right.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Jews tend to cluster around certain general understandings of Judaism, like Orthodoxy, secular or cultural Judaism, or ignorance and apathy. Other understandings, like moderate Conservativism tend to be less stable, with its adherents sometimes towards one of the other extremes. And when people make changes in their religious beliefs and practices, they often do so in large steps rather than gradually: Orthodox Jews go "off the derech" and secular Jews become Orthodox. In other words, Jewish religious beliefs tend to be "lumpy." Why?
One possible answer comes from the idea of "reflective equilibrium", a phenomenon explained by noted philosopher John Rawls. (My co-blogger Diane studied with Rawls; unlike me, she actually knows something.)
In A Theory of Justice, Rawls explained the idea of reflective equilibrium. He noted that people tend to start with both general theoretical ideas and some particular judgments. These may conflict, and when they do, we modify either our theoretical beliefs or our particular conclusions and then think some more. As long as conflicts remain, we are not in reflective equilibrium, and we repeat the process. However, once we reach a point where our general theory and our particular judgments are consistent with each other, we are in reflective equilibrium and we are satisfied with both.
One implication of this theory is that once we have reached reflective equilibrium, our beliefs tend to support each other. That is, particular beliefs (either general ideas or concrete conclusions) cannot be modified in isolation. The whole system of general beliefs and specific conclusions hangs together, and it is difficult to simply make a slight modification. (We don't see Orthodox Jews observing 612 mitzvot, but skipping (say) putting up a mezuzah.)
Another implication is that beliefs tend to be robust. That is, it is difficult to get people to change. A particular problem does not challenge only one small aspect of beliefs, but the entire system, and the system has a lot of intellectual inertia.
We see this robustness in religious discussions. When a traditional Orthodox Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of needless suffering, modern bible scholarship, evolution, 2 million people wandering in Sinai, Noah's flood), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. Similarly, when a secular Jew is confronted with some potentially troubling argument (the existence of consciousness, the "Torah Codes", the inconsistency between going to synagogue on Yom Kippur and not observing other mitzvot), his reaction is often to ignore the problem, deny the problem, or dismiss the argument as just implausible or unbelievable. (Note: I am not making any claims regarding these arguments themselves; I am simply noting how people respond.)
A third implication is that some belief systems are relatively stable, and others are relatively unstable. As a very general matter, I see three stable and one semi-stable belief system.
The stable belief systems:
Orthodoxy: God entered into an eternal covenant with the Jewish people and gave us the Torah as binding instructions for life. Jews should do all the mitzvot and devote their lives to Judaism.
Slightly Observant and Barely Religious: Authentic Judaism is Orthodoxy, and we do not want any part of that. Judaism consists of ancient bizarre rituals and stories that no sensible person would take seriously. But it is mostly harmless, and might have some beneficial aspects, like teaching children general ethics and social responsibility, lifecycle rituals, and innocuous holidays like Chanukah and Passover. So we will send our kids to religious school at a Reform or Conservative synagogue to "get bar-mitzvahed," but we'll quit after that. But we're not going to do the second half of the seder, our Yom Kippur fasting will probably stop when we get hungry, we're not going to read the Torah or any book about Judaism for that matter, and we've never heard of Shavuot and don't really care.
Hostile and Non-Observant: Judaism is just silly. We don't belief in God. We don't need religion for ethics, and the whole thing just upsets me. Religious people are deluded and foolish.
The semi-stable belief system:
Religious and Moderately Observant: We have an non-traditional understanding of both God and Torah. We take Judaism seriously. We observe enough mitzvot that our liberal Jewish friends think we are nuts (or might even be Orthodox!). But we do not observe enough mitzvot that our Orthodox friends think we are heretics. Unlike everyone else, our answers to simple religious questions involve long and complicated answers. We like contradictory slogans like "Tradition and Change."
The obvious reason why the last belief system (which is mine, BTW) is only semi-stable is that it is balancing between competing contradictory ideas, and if that balance gets unbalanced, we run off to one of the extremes. (Although we gain some flexibility, and things like atheism, agnosticism, theism, bible criticism, the existence of suffering or evil tend not to require huge shifts in our belief system.)
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Before Yom Kippur, a friend and colleague (the some one with the clever Rosh Hashana suggestion) had a good suggestion for thinking about ne'ilah. (This is the short closing service on Yom Kippur just as the day is ending. It literally means the closing of the gates, either of heaven, repentance, or prayer.) He noted that many people imagine themselves outside the gates as they are closing. (I did.) The problem is that this conveys a pretty unpleasant message: you didn't make it, or at least not yet. He suggested that I instead think about myself as being inside the gates as they are closing.
I tried it. About halfway through neilah, I imagined that I had made it through the gates and I thought of my tallis as the wings of the shechinah around me. But then I had two problematic thoughts: (1) I started worrying about the people who had not yet made it through the gates, and (2) now I didn't have to daven so hard since I was already through the gates. Blah.
So I started thinking a little more about the gates, and I had two contradictory but helpful thoughts.
The indisputable fact is that Yom Kippur is ending. And once the day is over, we will all be in the next day. So the gates of the day itself are closing, and they are closing for everyone. So everyone is on one side, the good side, the Yom Kippur side. And as the sun sets, we all move through the gates together, the gates close, and Yom Kippur is over. The holiday was whatever we made of it, and we are done.
I then had a second thought. The gates are the special gates of prayer or of repentance open only on Yom Kippur. We ourselves do not actually go through the gates; only our prayers or our repentance do. And they close for everyone when Yom Kippur ends (although other gates are certainly open then).
Here, as in many other parts of Judaism, there are multiple, overlapping, and even contradictory ways of thinking about the same idea.
Friday, September 25, 2009
Sukkot might be one of the few post-denominational holidays. Everyone can do what they love. Orthodox Jews can focus on lots of technical halachic details, like how much wall flapping is permitted. Reform Jews can think about social justice issues, like people who have no home at all, let alone a sukkah. Conservative Jews can agonize endlessly over which sukkot rules to change, if any, and who should make that determination, and how, and after considering what, and .... And if they are using their sukkah from last year, Reconstructionist Jews may literally be reconstructing.
But the one thing that should unite everyone is that Sukkot is a holiday of joy. Literally: z'man simchateinu. So after the apples and honey have been eaten, the lists of goals made, the forgiveness sought and received, the fasting both fasted and break-fasted, it is time for some pure happiness. I have previously written about why everyone should celebrate Sukkot and some practical issues in building your own sukkah. (Hint: use bolts not screws, so that it is easier to dissemble and reuse next year.) And if you have young kids, they love to help build and decorate a sukkah.
So go plan and build your sukkah. Remember, there is no weekend between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, so start planning and building now. Have a meaningful Yom Kippur, but then have a wonderful Sukkot.
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Ben Z at Mah Rabu has a post on egalitarian issues in marriage entitled Marriage In Generalized Coordinates. He used some advanced math (including Lagrangian mechanics), but his basic point is that since we have not worked out all the kinks in how to do a more egalitarian wedding ceremony, individual people have to do a lot more thinking, compromising, and trial-and-error work than would otherwise be true.
Ben's post raises an interesting general point about the evolution of Jewish practices and their resulting or non-resulting equilibrium. Ben's background is in physics, but mine is in both law and economics. (My use of Lagrange multipliers was limited to solving n-dimensional optimization problems.) And so I approached this issue a little differently.
Here's the problem. Traditional Judaism advocates particular Jewish practices, rituals, and laws. Before the modern age, these were more or less universally accepted as what Judaism advocated, even if particular people might not follow them. (So there was a traditional standard of kashrut, or of shabbat observance, although some people did not keep kosher or shabbat.) But in the modern age, there has been pressure to change some some of these laws in light of modern ideals, especially in the Reform and Conservative world. The problem is that they have not evolved into a single new standard, but have resulted in many people and many communities each doing their own thing.
I am not arguing whether this is good or bad, only that it has happened.
To see the problem, it might be helpful to look at both law and economics. Both of these fields involve evolution. Legal rules change over time, and current American law is quite different from English common law from 700 years ago, even though it evolved from this. But we have a single law (at least in any single jurisdiction) not a bunch of people, each with their own law.
And of course institutions in the economy change and evolve. New companies are created and succeeds, some companies fail, some new product succeed, and others fail. We are constantly getting better mousetraps, but there is a lot of confusion as the "gale of creative destruction" works its toll.
Both the common law and the economy are able to evolve only because of a complex backdrop of institutions. The common law requires a complex set of courts, litigants, parties, legislatures, prior case law, and rules that require general deference but some flexibility when it comes to previous decisions. The economy requires a complex backdrop of property, contract, and tort law, as well as corporate law and bankruptcy law. It also requires risk takers and risk avoiders, financial capital, human capital, and plain old ingenuity. Without all of these institutions, it would be impossible to evolve --- that is, to move from one state to another while still maintaining some continuity with the past.
Jewish law and Jewish practices have a hard time evolving. And perhaps one reason is the lack of institutions that make this possible.
In the Orthodox world, the tendency is not to evolve. The decision rules of halacha are backwards looking. Once prior generations have decided an issue, it is difficult if not impossible to reverse that. There are some modifications in the interstices, but things tend to be pretty static. Of course, this leads to its own problems. In America, Orthodoxy is often out of sync with the broader society, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. This dissonance leads to problems that Orthodoxy must address, and how to deal with the modern world is one key area that separates Modern Orthodoxy from hareidi Orthodoxy.
In the non-Orthodox world, the goal is to evolve, at least where appropriate. As we reach new understandings of things like Bible criticism, science, feminism, and egalitarianism, we tend to modify or want to modify some rules and practices and beliefs. (Ben Z's marriage discussion is one example of this.) But we lack the institutions to allow this to evolve, as opposed to simply changing into radically decentralized individual decisionmaking.
I think this problem is most acute in the Reform world. With its emphasis on individualism and autonomy, Reform in effect encourages people to make their own decisions. As a result, longstanding practices not only get changed, but they get changed into numerous different things. And this problem will only grow worse over time. It is hard to maintain a community and community standards when everyone in theory is encouraged to do whatever he or she finds meaningful. And this in turn makes it hard for new dominant practices to emerge and to reach new equilibria. As Ben Z noted, there are a lot of people doing a lot of thinking and coming up with a lot of new wedding ceremonies.
The Conservative movement tries to address this problem with the Rabbinical Assembly and to a lesser extent with other central organizations. The problem here is more practical and sociological. Few Conservative Jews pay attention to this. When deciding whether to eat peanut butter during Passover, Conservative Jews weigh many different considerations, but reviewing the RA's teshuvah on this issue is probably not high on the list. Thus, despite some institutional structure leading to centralized decisionmaking, and thus possibly to new equilibria, these institutions might not have sufficient power, or even social pressure, to produce new practices.
The result of all of this is that over time, Orthodoxy may grow more out of sync with the rest of the world, while Reform and Conservative Judaism may grow out of sync with traditional Judaism with themselves.
Of course, it is not clear that this is a problem. It may be that the lack of a single equilibrium is on balance beneficial. Different communities can have different standards, and people will go where they are most comfortable. But it has costs too, as Ben's example illustrates. There is not a single (or even a small set) of egalitarian wedding ceremonies that have commanded universal acceptance. So Ben, his wife, and lots of other people spend a lot of time thinking about and inventing such ceremonies.
If this is a problem, the solution for Reform and Conservative Jews is to devise some institutional structures that can provide a counterbalance to the decentralizing and centrifugal forces already in operation. (See Ben - I can use physics terms too.) I am not sure what these institutions are, though. They do not have to be central organizations of rabbis (although that may be part of it), and they will need to have broader popular appeal.
L'shana tovah everyone.
I have made a short change to the blog format. I have created two general indexes, one for the TMH / DH project, and one for the blog in general. I then included links to these indexes in the margin on the right. Hopefully, that will increase the readability, decrease the clutter, and make navigation a little easier.
UPDATE: I probably should have put the links here.
Torah Min Hashamayim / Documentary Hypothesis index
Monday, September 14, 2009
Following up on parts 1 and 2. Jeff Bernhardt published an interesting article in the Jewish Journal entitled "In Approaching the High Holy Days, It Pays to Take Time to Prepare." It is along the same lines as my earlier posts. Well worth a look.
Monday, September 7, 2009
Friedman points out that the phrase "in that very day" (sometimes translated "in that selfsame day" or "in that same day") occurs 11 times on the Torah. Ten of these are in P, and the 11th is R, modeled after P. The Hebrew is "בְּעֶצֶם הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה" or "b'etzem ha-yom ha-zeh".
Here is the list:
Gen 7:13 - "In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah's wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark."
Gen 17:23 - "And Abraham took Ishmael his son, and all that were born in his house, and all that were bought with his money, every male among the men of Abraham's house, and circumcised the flesh of their foreskin in the selfsame day, as God had said unto him."
Gen 17:26 - "In the selfsame day was Abraham circumcised, and Ishmael his son."
Exod. 12:17 - "And ye shall observe the feast of unleavened bread; for in this selfsame day have I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt . . . ."
Exod 12:41 - "And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years, even the selfsame day it came to pass, that all the host of the LORD went out from the land of Egypt."
Exod 12:51 - "And it came to pass the selfsame day that the LORD did bring the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt by their hosts."
Lev 23:14 - "And ye shall eat neither bread, nor parched corn, nor fresh ears, until this selfsame day, until ye have brought the offering of your God; it is a statute for ever throughout your generations in all your dwellings."
Lev. 23:21 - [On Shavuot]: "And ye shall make proclamation on the selfsame day; there shall be a holy convocation unto you; ye shall do no manner of servile work . . . "
Lev 23:28 - [On Yom Kippur] "And ye shall do no manner of work in that same day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for you before the LORD your God. "
Lev 23:28 - "For whatsoever soul it be that shall not be afflicted in that same day, he shall be cut off from his people."
Deut 32:48 - "And the LORD spoke unto Moses that selfsame day, saying:" [continued in 32:49-50: 'Get thee up into this mountain of Abarim, unto mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, that is over against Jericho; and behold the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel for a possession; and die in the mount whither thou goest up, and be gathered unto thy people; as Aaron thy brother died in mount Hor, and was gathered unto his people.'] (Note: this is from R.)
This phrase arises in very different contexts, including narrative stories (Noah's flood, Abraham's circumcision, the exodus from Egypt, death of Moses) and the laws of holidays (Passover barley offering, Shavuot, Yom Kippur).
Oswald T. Allis in "The Five Books of Moses" (3rd ed 1964) attacks the DH and defends the traditional view. In this book, he addresses the Sinai-Horeb issue. His general argument is that J and E get really fragmented if one tries to separate them, and he is right. Advocates of the documentary hypothesis note this as well. If the only sources were J and E, the theory would be considerably weaker. But we also have P and D and they break more cleanly.
Let's look at his argument in detail. In making a more general point (that there are sometimes variations in wording within a single source, even though one would expect uniformity) (p. 34), Allis includes an endnote (p. 310, n. 27), where he discusses Horeb and Sinai:
If Horeb is regarded as characteristic of E (Ex. iii.1, xcii.6, xxxiii.6), the mention of Sinai six times in Ex. xix constitutes a serious difficulty, since all critics apparently find a considerable E element in this chapter. According to Driver the verses which mention Sinai are either P (vss. 1, 2a) or J (vss. 11, 18, 20, 23), while vss 2b, 3a, 10-11a, 14-17, 19 are given to E. . . . But this analysis destroys the continuity of both E and J. E.g., E skips from Ex. ii.14 (or 10) to iii.1 and then to iii.4b.
Let's unpack this argument. Allis argues that if we separate E and J using the Horeb / Sinai distinction, we run into a problem with the story in Exodus 19 (were God revealed himself just before giving the Ten Commandments). More specifically, once we separate out the J and P elements from the story, we are left with an incomplete E narrative.
Allis uses Driver's breakdown of the sources. However, as I have noted, Friedman later revised this breakdown slightly and reverses some of the J and E sources. (See my Exodus comparison chart --- good thing I put that together.) Friedman's E story coveres 19:2a-9, 16b-17, and 19.) (This argument is easier to follow with an open Torah.)
How does this argument hold up? P is not a problem. The P source is simply the introductory sentence 19:1, and R has 19:2a.
E and J are a little messier, but not too bad. They are interwoven, but E stands in pretty good shape. God talks to Moses (19:3-6), and Moses tells the elders and the people (19:7-8), and then God speaks again to Moses and tells him he will appear in a cloud (19:9). And the God does so. (19:16b-17, 19.) Driver's version (see the chart) is a little shorter and choppier, but still hangs together as a coherent story.
J also holds up. In it, God tells Moses to tell the people to get ready (19:10-13) and he does so (19:14-15). On the third day, there is thunder and lightening, smoke, and God appears and speaks to Moses again. (19:16a, 18, 20-25.)
So Allis's more general point is one worth considering and I think it is one that is universally acknowledged. If separating the sources produces incoherent or incomplete stories, that weakens the claim for the DH. Conversely, if separating the stories produces complete and coherent stories, which are themselves inconsistent with other narratives, that strengthens the claim. But everyone acknowledges that separating the sources sometimes produces complete and consistent narratives that are themselves inconsistent with other narratives (like the two creation stories), sometimes produces messier fragments, and sometimes produces something in the middle. And I think everyone acknowledges that this is more of a problem with J and E, and less of a problem with P, E, and JE.
But here, once Friedman's revisions are taken into account, the E source is fragmentary but not incoherent.
So I will keep this argument in mind as we go through other sources.
As noted earlier, the mountain where God appeared to the Children of Israel is called both Sinai and Horeb. As discussed earlier, the Documentary Hypothesis notes that P and J exclusively use Sinai and E and D exclusively used Horeb.
I have not yet been able to find a traditional explanation of the use of these two names. Rashi does not mention anything. The Talmud notes that these names refer to the same mountain, and then notes the derivations of the names:
What is [the meaning of] Mount Sinai? The mountain whereon there descended hostility [sin'ah] toward idolaters. And thus R. Jose son of R. Hanina said: It has five names: [...] Whilst what was its [real] name? Its name was Horeb. Now they disagree with R. Abbahu, For R. Abbahu said: its name was Mount Sinai, and why was it called Mount Horeb? Because desolation [hurbah] to idolaters descended thereon.
Without getting into the merits of this claim, it simply is addressing a different question. Regardless of how the names were derived and what they mean, why is it that one name is used in certain places and another name is used in other places?
If anyone has an explanation from traditional sources, please leave a comment.
Friday, August 28, 2009
It ain't magic, ya know.
You simply cannot show up in synagogue on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, mumble a few prayers, and expect to be magically cleansed of your sins. It is not even clear what being "cleansed of your sins" means in that context. To make these holidays meaningful, it takes a little work ahead of time. But fortunately the payoff is large. These holidays represent an ideal opportunity to take stock of our lives, think about what we are doing right and try to continue it during the next year, and think about what we are doing wrong and take steps to correct that during the next year. Part of the great wisdom inherent in the Jewish holidays is that they provide very real, practical, and this-worldly opportunities to make our lives better.
Last year, I posted about how I and others prepared for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. A few commentators made other suggestions. I was speaking to (an Orthodox) friend and colleague the other day, and he graciously shared the interesting way in which he prepares for the holidays.
Each year during Elul (the month before Rosh Hashana) he prepares an outline of all the important areas of his life: family, professional life, friends and relationships, religious, learning, etc. He then password-protects the document and saves it. No one has access to the document, not even his wife. He lists all his specific goals for next year: where he would like to improve, where he would like to continue to do well, what specifically he would like to achieve. In preparing for this, he reviews his outline from the previous year to help him take stock of how he did during the current year.
This is similar to the process I use, but with one huge improvement: it is in writing and can be a lot more detailed. It is easy for him to check on his progress during the year and in fact in subsequent years. But I had not written down my goals, and so I sometimes had a hard time remembering specifically what I wanted to do. And with password protection, it is safe. I am going to follow his lead this year and do the same.
The only thing surprising about his process was that he described himself as being somewhat intense and fanatical about all this. I got the sense from him that few people in his community do this kind of preparation for the holidays. Few people in my Conservative community do this type of preparation either, at least that I know of. But I think we all should do something along these lines. To borrow Tom Lehrer's line (and omit his simile): what we get out of these holidays depends on what we put into them. I am sure that we have all experienced boring and meaningless Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, where we walk out of synagogue and wonder why we went in the first place. Well, a little preparation now solves that problem then.
So let me leave people with two questions, one religious and one sociological:
What if anything do you or people you know do to prepare for the holidays?
How many people in your family or community prepare for the holidays in some serious way?
Friday, July 31, 2009
Rabbi Yitchok Adlerstein at Cross-Currents seems to exclusively write thoughtful, interesting, and sensitive posts. (I started reading his Cross-Currents posts about a decade ago in their pre-blog e-mail stage.) He has just written on consoling the bereaved. I do not have anything to add to the substance, other than to note that it is well worth reading.
From my Conservative Jewish perspective, I have long thought that Judaism and contemporary society both influence each other, especially where they differ. For example, some modern values, like egalitarianism, feminism, democracy, empiricism and science, and philosophic free inquiry, present strong challenges to traditional and pre-modern Judaism, and some of these ideas have resulted in important changes to Judaism, especially in the more liberal branches. The converse is true as well. As I discussed in an earlier post on "low hanging fruit", there are some traditional Jewish values and sensibilities that are brilliant and insightful and are manifestly counter-cultural in modern America. The prohibition of gossip, for example, is high on my list. Regardless of denomination (or even lack of denomination), we can benefit from understanding these ideas and incorporating them into our lives.
One of these counter-cultural practices --- as Evanston Jew noted in the comments to that post --- is traditional Jewish practices regarding burial, mourning, and comforting the bereaved. R. Adlerstein's post puts meat on those bones. He offers practical suggestions on what to do and say (and not do and not say) at a funeral, shiva visit, and afterwards. This is an uncomfortable situation for most of us, and traditional ideas are quite helpful. Like all of his posts, this one is worth reading.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
A commenter Jerry raised an important challenge (here and here)to my interpretation of the Daughters of Zelophechad story (here and here). My argument, in short, is that Moses's final political act was to modify a halachic rule in the name of God, but without consulting God, to promote justice. In doing so, he created a common law system. The story is in Numbers 36:1-12.
Jerry disagrees. He argues, based on Number 36:5 and 6, that Moses did consult God first. The narrative of that consultation is omitted in the text, but it is referred to by Moses. He further argues that this story is shortened because the action speeds up once Moses's death is announced in Number 27:12.
This argument is plausible, but I think my reading is better.
The Torah contains three stories involving a change in the law, and the question I am addressing is what do we make of these stories. A careful look at the three stories shows an interesting change in structure.
The first story involves the second passover (pesach sheni) story in Numbers 9. God issues a command regarding the passover sacrifices. Some people come to Moses with a particular problem. They are ritually unclean (since they just buried a dead person) and cannot offer the sacrifice. (Num. 9:6-7), Moses then consults God and God explicitly responds with a change in the law, namely, that they can celebrate Passover a month later. (Num. 9:8-14). God not only modifies the law for people who are ritually unclean, but also for people who are are on a long trip. Notably, God changes the law without commentary or explanation, but the clear implication is that the old law did not work well, at least for these people in these particular circumstances.
The second story involves the Daughters of Zelophechad. (Num 27.) They come to Moses with a particular problem with the law (Num 27:1-4), and the text explicitly states that that Moses consulted God and God responded with a change in the law. (Num 27:5-6.) Here, God changes the law because the daughters' claim is "just".
The third story involves the men from Manasseh wanting a further modification to the previous law change. They consult Moses and explain the problem. (Num 38:1-4.) But there is no account of Moses consulting God as he did in the two earlier stories. Instead, the next sentence simply says "And Moses commanded the children of Israel on (or about) the word of God." (Num 36:5.) And then, "This is the word (or thing) that the Lord has commanded regarding Zelophechad's daughters." (Num 36:6.)
From a purely halachic point of view, all three stories are unnecessary. The final halachic rule is "Do X, unless Y applies, in which case do Z." The Torah could have simply set forth the rule in that form. (E.g., Celebrate Passover on 14th of Nissan. However, if you are ritually unclean or on a long trip, celebrate it on the 14th of Iyar.) However, the Torah gives us the general rule, a story where this general rule creates a problem, the people effected asking Moses for an exception, Moses consulting God, and God agreeing to the exception. In fact, with the two Daughters of Zelophechad stories, there is a complex final rule involving a limitation to an exception to a rule.
My claim is that the purpose of the stories is to show that halacha is a common law system. It evolves and changes. In the first story (pesach sheni), the problem involves people who are ritually unclean, but God imposes a broader exception (for people who are unclean or on a trip). This shows that exceptions are not always limited to particular cases, but may involve broader categories or similar categories. In the second story (Daughters of Zelophechad), the change is made in the interests of justice. That is, it identifies one particular reason for making a change in the law. And in the third case (men from Manasseh), there is a shift in the source of the change. Rather than the text explicitly stating Moses consulted God and God commanded the change, we have no mention of Moses consulting God and Moses commanding the change himself, albeit stating that it is from God. My claim is that this story teaches that once Moses knew the principles and was old and wise, he himself could modify the law under appropriate circumstances in accordance with these principles. And this change in the law is in fact commanded by God. In other words, this is another example of people acting to bring Godliness into the world, rather than God acting to bring Godliness into the world in a supernatural way.
This is a perfectly reasonable way to run a legal system. English and American common law have worked this way for the better part of a millennium. In fact, I think the halachic system recognizes this explicitly. Not only can leaders impose new laws as "fences", but they can also command that positive Torah mitzvot not be performed (such as the rule prohibiting the explicit Torah mitzvah of hearing the shofar on Rosh Hashana when RH falls on Shabbat).
Jerry notes that the wording in this third story is used elsewhere. The text says "And Moses commanded the children of Israel according to the word of the LORD, saying: 'The tribe of the sons of Joseph speaketh right. This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded concerning the daughters of Zelophehad, saying: ....'" That is, Moses himself notes that God issued these commands. And this form is used elsewhere. For example, "And Moses spoke unto the heads of the tribes of the children of Israel, saying: This is the thing which the LORD hath commanded: . . . ." (Num. 30:2.) In this last example, there is no record of God explicitly saying these things, but presumably God did. So too in Numbers 34, argues Jerry.
This is certainly a plausible reading of the text. But this theory does not explain why the structure of the narrative changed from the earlier two stories (where God was explicitly consulted) to here, where God is not explicitly consulted in the text. And it does not explain what we learn from this story. We already know from the earlier two stories that God can change the law and that God does so when a claim is "just."
Jerry's explanation is that the narrative needs to speed up once Moses's death is announced in Number 27:12. But a single sentence saying that Moses asked God would not drag things out. Note how this is dealt with in the second story: "And Moses brought their cause before the LORD. And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying: . . . ." That doesn't really slow down the action a lot. And of course we have the entire book of Deuteronomy before Moses finally dies, and the action comes to a complete stop during that book.
Moreover, Numbers 28 (the chapter immediately after Moses's future death is announced) contains a long speech by God. Jerry notes this and argues that it is a "follow up" to the same commands in Exodus. True, but that makes matters worse. If the text is trying to speed up, it makes no sense to include repetitive mitzvot and add extra text involving God speaking.
But strictly speaking, Jerry's reading is plausible. There is enough in the text, consistent with other areas of the Torah, to support the reading that Moses did consult God here. And my reading is plausible as well. There is an odd change in the structure of these stories that is only explained by the idea that Moses did not explicitly consult God but made the change himself based on divine principles. And my theory ties in with a broader notion of the common law evolution of halacha. But neither of our theories give a broader account of when the Torah presents a command by stating that God says X, that Moses says God says X, or both.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
Moses's final act as the leader of the Israelites (other than his long review speeches in Deuteronomuy) is to make an explicit change in halacha, in the name of both God and justice, without consulting God. This is contained in two separate stories involving the Daughters of Zelophechad and inheritance law. (See Num. 27:1-11 and Num. 36:1-12.) The straightforward interpretation of this story (maybe even at the peshat level) is that Jewish law, or halacha, is not a static set of rules, but instead evolves over time, like common law. Laws can change, new laws can be imposed, and old laws can be removed, provided that the demands of justice require this change.
This interpretation runs directly counter to the contemporary Orthodox understanding of halacha, although I have not seen a traditional explanation of these stories that explains them in any other way. It also supports a Conservative understanding of halacha, although I have never seen this story offered as a proof text for modifications of halacha.
The first story is contained in this week's parsha, and I blogged about this last year. This blog has quite a few more readers this year than last year. Rather than repeat the post, I simply link to it here. Take a look. (If you leave a comment, please leave it in last year's post rather than in this post.)
Sunday, June 21, 2009
I really appreciate the anti-Israel group that spearheaded a completely ineffective boycott of Trader Joe's. They "raised awareness" --- at least to me --- of an important issue.
In case you missed it, some newly-minted month-old wacko group, spouting the usual anti-Israel blather of such wacko groups, demanded that Trader Joe's remove all Israeli products from its shelves. As always seems to be the case with such groups, they apparently had no concerns about all the other countries that do far worse things than what they claim Israel does, thereby raising the obvious inference that they are motivated by their own anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiments, rather a broader concern for human rights.
Trader Joe's properly refused their demands. "Trader Joe’s will not be used as a political tool, and we will not remove any products under pressure from any group. We believe our customers are smart and capable enough to make their own choices,” Trader Joe's explained. Exactly.
The wackos then decided to launch a boycott, with picketers, leaflets (which the wackos usually refer to as "literature"), and taking Israeli products off shelves. I assume the wackos' best case scenario would involve zillions showing up at my local TJ's shouting "No justice, no falafels." But things did not go as planned. The boycott "fizzled" according to the Jewish Journal and the LA Times blog, with about 20 protesters showing up in Oakland and a few other cities, and not much else.
I am not sure that "fizzled" is the right verb. The protest might not have turned out great numbers of wackos, but it did manage to focus my attention on a critical issue about which I was completely ignorant. I had no idea Trader Joe's actually had Israeli products. But my ignorance is now dispelled, and yours can be too: Trader Joe's apparently has both Israeli couscous and feta cheese. My family shops weekly at Trader Joe's, and we will be sure to pick some up next time we are there.
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Until fairly recently, the Conservative and Reform movements were comprised of people who had at least some knowledge of the basics of traditional Judaism. Many had more observant or traditional parents or grandparents, had grown up in more observant homes and in primarily Jewish neighborhoods, and in some way or another were exposed to the basic traditions, rituals, beliefs, and holidays of Judaism. However, many Jews today in these movements have virtually no knowledge of, or experience with, some of the basic ideas and practices in Judaism.
Fifty years ago and earlier, these movements could operate with what I will call subtractive Judaism. They could take the existing set of traditional beliefs and decide what practices to relax, modify, or eliminate. For example, the Reform movement in the 19th century could switch from Hebrew to English (or German) in prayerbooks. The Conservative movement in the 1950s could liberalize some of the stringencies of shabbat and kashrut. But in both cases, they were starting with people who observed, or at least were familiar with, the traditional way of doing things.
That is no longer true. A substantial percentage of people in Conservative and Reform synagogues simply do not have any substantial knowledge of Judaism. They have not read the Torah, have no idea what it says, have not read other traditional texts, do not daven, do not attend services, do not keep any level of kashrut, do not know about most rituals, and do not know about, let alone observe, most holidays other than Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Passover. The challenge facing the Conservative and Reform movement is not what to subtract from traditional Jewish practices. It is what to add to no traditional Jewish practices. In many ways, this is the same issue that Orthodox kiruv groups face.
Given that, what are the low-hanging fruits in Judaism? That is, what are some mitzvot, holidays, rituals, or types of learning that interested but not very knowledgeable Jews might do at relatively low cost and obtain relatively large benefits. Where do you get the biggest Jewish bang for the buck. This is really a very practical question.
For example, Chabad started a campaign 50 years ago or so to get less observant Jews to wear tefillin. My (no doubt ill-informed) opinion is that this is a really odd mitzvah to start with. Non-observant Jews often view tefillin as strange and meaningless, and it reinforces the idea that traditional Judaism is full of bizarre arcane rituals. But Chabad has had some success with this, so what do I know?
I have a few other ideas, and I would be interested in other people's thoughts.
Shabbat evening. It is simply nice to be with family and friends, to light candles, for husbands to say something nice about or to their wives and kids, to drink wine, and to eat challah. And maybe even talk about something important and meaningful.
Shabbat day. More of a challenge, given the rest of life. But carving out time to be with family and friends, not to answer phones or e-mail, not to be distracted by video games or television, and not to worry about work or chores is a good thing.
Sukkot. A really nice holiday. I have no idea why it has fallen out of favor with many Reform and Conservative Jews. It might have something to do with Jewish men and their inability to use tools, but now there are lots of nice kits around. (I like building my own sukkah, but I may be exceptional here. I think I am the only Jewish man on the planet with a tablesaw and several routers.)
Counting the Omer. My kids and I think it is cool, but my wife thinks it a bit silly. There's all sorts of interesting interpretations and things to think about while counting the omer, and it all makes you better and wiser. And I told the kids that if we make it through all 49 days withing skipping a day, we'll go out for ice cream after Shavuot. So far, we are on track.
Reading the Torah. No substitute for that. And lots of good English translations available.
A Really Interactive Seder. Seders do not have to be boring exercises where people take turns reading paragraphs from the Maxwell House haggadah. A little reading and planning ahead of time (and some willing participants), and it can turn into a pretty meaningful performance art, a fun time for the kids, and a great intellectual discussion on the ideas of freedom.
Any other thoughts?
UPDATE: (here's more)
The Rules of L'shon Hara. Judaism takes a very strong position against truthful gossip. One is forbidding to say something negative about someone, even if it is true, with some limited exceptions. (Saying something false and negative falls into a different and worse category.) American culture does not place much value on this idea. People gossip, and much popular entertainment is devoted to this. Judaism is refreshing counter-cultural here.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
The well-known article "Will Your Grandchildren Be Jews?" claims that only Orthodoxy can save American Judaism from extinction caused by high intermarriage rates and lower birthrates among non-Orthodox Jews. This article addresses a real problem, but in a slipshod way. In Will Your Grandchildren Be Reform?, I have criticized this article for ignoring the relatively high Orthodox interdenominational switching rates. As noted there, a much higher percentage of Jews raised Orthodox switch to other denominations than Jews raised in other denominations. In the comments section, commentators have criticized my critique for not distinguishing between the more nominal Orthodoxy of 50 to 100 years ago (with a presumably higher switching rate) and the deeper Orthodoxy of today (with a presumably lower rate). I think that critique is correct as far as it goes, but the original article is still deficient for failing to include any adjustment for interdenominational switching.
In A Tale of Two Jewries: the “Inconvenient Truth” for American Jews Sociologist Steven M. Cohen has examined the data and reached a a much more nuanced conclusion: the overall denominational averages masks the presence of "two Jewries". And this conclusion has startling implications.
Cohen notes that American Jews tend to fall into two broad categories:
In short, there is a Jewishly committed group, and a Jewishly uncommitted group. Or perhaps a core and a periphery. (Cohen refers to them an the in-married and the inter-married, although the groups seem to me to capture much more than simply choice of spouse.)
What is largely missing in a middle, or a moderately committed group. In the past, this group may have been by less observant people with a strong ethnic sense of Judaism. But in the past several decades, ethnicity as a force in Judaism has strongly declined. Cohen notes that we have experienced "ethnic decline but religious stability."
Cohen found that the committed group tends to raise children who are themselves committed, and the uncommitted group tends to raise children who are themselves uncommitted. But his most interesting conclusion is that the committed group is dispersed throughout the denominations in approximately equal numbers. That is, in absolute numbers, there is about the same number of committed Jews who are Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. But since the Reform movement is the largest, followed by Conservative Judaism, followed by Orthodoxy, the percentage of "committed" Jews is very high in Orthodoxy, smaller in Conservativism, and smaller still in Reform.
Because of this, the overall averages for the denominations picks up and masks the averages of two very different sub-populations within that denomination. So a much smaller percentage of Reform Jews (say) attend a passover seder than Orthodox Jews, but that is because Reform Jews have a relatively low number of "committed" Jews (who do attend seders in high numbers) and a relatively high number of uncommitted Jews (who do not).
The implications of this are striking. Contrary to the Orthodox claims, the "solution" to the "problem" of Jewish continuity is not for Jews to become Orthodox; it is for Jews to become religiously knowledgeable, committed, and involved. That is, if a Reform of Conservative Jew really takes Judaism seriously --- that is, has a high level of Jewish knowledge, observance, and belief, affiliates with a synagogue, marries another Jew (by birth or conversion), and sends his or her children to Jewish institutions --- that Jew has a relatively high chance of that Jew's children doing the same.
An important warning: this is not grounds for complacency. Reform and Conservative Jews cannot simply join a synagogue and send their kids to camp and think that they have ensured Jewish continuity. They need to strive for a serious and deep understanding of Judaism, actually practice it, and teach this diligently to their children. The v'ahavta has it right, and v'shenantam l'vanecha is at the core. The challenge for Conservative and especially Reform Jews is to be able to do this in a synagogue where only some of the members have similar beliefs and practices.
What does this involve? More in future posts.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
Da'as Hedyot has republished a five-part autobiographical post from blogger Little Foxling about his path away from Orthodoxy and the Documentary Hypothesis. The personal and intellectual story is fascinating.
Before I started this blog, I was hunting around the web for info on the DH. I came across LF's comments on someone else's blog. Someone had made a silly point, and LF responded by presenting the DH. He was immediately attacked by pretty much every other commentator. He then took on the whole room, point-by-point: LF vs. 15 other people. His arguments were precise, on point, and solid. It was clear he had a deep knowledge of both traditional sources and the documentary hypothesis and had really thought through these issues. I was quite impressed and started reading his blog regularly.
Unfortunately, LF stopped blogging and moved on to other things. He and I still occasionally e-mail each other.
Among other things, LF notes that Orthodox Jews have not effectively responded to the Documentary Hypothesis. They either ignore it, mischaracterize it and mock it, or (falsely) claim that scholars no longer belief in it. This neglect is quite dangerous. Sooner or later (and probably sooner, given the internet), it will lead more and more Orthodox Jews to doubt and eventually disbelieve the central factual tenet of Orthodox Judaism, namely a literal "Torah from Heaven" or Torah min Hashamayim. They will leave Orthodoxy, and the people who do so (like LF) will disproportionately be the brighter ones. When you are in a Galilelo vs. the Pope type of argument, you simply do not want to be taking the Pope side. It might work in the short run, but you end up losing very badly, and looking very foolish, in the long run.
Orthodoxy needs to effectively respond to the discoveries of modern Bible scholarship or come up with a better theory of revelation. The failure to do so risks seriously undermining Orthodoxy.
Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I have now blogged about the Horeb / Sinai issue from the DH perspective. I am now looking at traditional explanations for the use of these two names, and I have a general methodological question: how do I research this in particular, and similar issues in general?
I have a few approaches:
1. Look at a Torah with commentary. (Rashi, etc.) The problem here is that this requires looking at each of the 40 or so instances of Sinai and Horeb to see if there is comment.
2. Poke around the web. I've found some general sources that reference other things. Like a short Talmudic discussion in Shabbat 89a-89b.
3. Check sources that argue against the DH. I've found a brief passage discussing this issue in Eisenstein's Commentary on the Torah. Nothing in R. Etshalom's book or Cassuto's book.
But other than these three approaches (Torah w/ commentary, web, traditional sources on DH), can someone think of a good way of researching this textual issue in particular, and similar textual issues in general?
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
There is a potential problem with separating out J and E that needs to be discussed. According to the DH, J and E were edited together into one text (appropriately called JE), and it is often hard to separate the strands. There are some stories or passages where characteristics indicating J are found right next to other characteristics indicating E. For example, the burning bush story in Exodus 3, and the revelation at Sinai in Exodus 19 both have combined sections from J and E. This problem is resolved by splitting the passage sentence by sentence, or sometimes even clause by clause.
In general, there are two possibilities here. It might be the case that the DH is correct and J and E were edited together this way. Alternatively, it might be the case that the DH is wrong and this is in fact a single text. If the former, it is quite difficult to show that this is the case. After all, one of the stronger arguments for the DH is that some passages are complete by themselves, show an internal consistency in style, wording, and content, but show an inconsistency with other passages. However, if a passage has elements of both J and E thoroughly mixed throughout, then it is much more difficult to show that they were originally separate texts. One would have to show that particular sentences or clauses show multiple characteristics of one source but not the other, and this gets difficult to show this persuasively at the sentence level.
One way of handling this problem is to treat J and E as a single combined source called JE, and contrast that with the other sources P and D. After all, most scholars believe that it is fairly easy, at least in most passages, to separate between P, D, and the combined JE.
That approach is fine as far as it goes. But the problem is that sometimes J shares characteristics with one of the other sources and E with another source. For example, J and P both refer to the mountain where God appears as "Sinai" and D and E both refer to it as "Horeb", and noted here and here. But if J and E are combined together, then that means that the combined document JE sometimes uses "Sinai" and sometimes uses "Horeb". That is obviously a less persuasive argument than if J and E were cleanly separable.
This is less persuasive, but not unpersuasive. After all, P uses only Sinai, and D uses only Horeb. That's a pretty compelling distinction by itself. And if we have multiple reasons to think that particular sentences or verses in JE are actually J or E, then that separation, although not as clean as the separation between P and D, is still somewhat persuasive.
Like always, this argument cannot be resolved in the abstract. The details are important. But it is something to watch carefully as we work through the text.
Monday, April 27, 2009
The word "Horeb" or the phrase "the mountain of God" ("har Elohim") appears 6 times in E, 9 times in D, and never in P or J. The complete list is set forth below.
(E) Exod. 3:1: Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. (Note: E and J are both present in the burning bush story. Separating them is complex. However, Friedman makes a reasonable case in his footnote. I will discuss how reasonable or unreasonable this is when we discuss that particular story. At that time, we will assume the various characteristics of each source and see how well that explains the divisions. But for now we are doing the opposite; we are assuming the divisions into sources and seeing how well that explains the characteristics of each source.)
(E) Exod. 4:27: The LORD said to Aaron, "Go into the desert to meet Moses." So he met Moses at the mountain of God and kissed him.
(E) Exod. 17:6: "...I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink."
(E) Exod. 18:5: Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, together with Moses' sons and wife, came to him in the desert, where he was camped near the mountain of God.
(E) Exod. 24:13: Then Moses set out with Joshua his aide, and Moses went up on the mountain of God.
(E) Exod. 33:6: So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
(Dtr1) Deut. 1:2: It takes eleven days to go from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea by the Mount Seir road.
(Dtr1) Deut. 1:6: The LORD our God said to us at Horeb, "You have stayed long enough at this mountain. . . ."
(Dtr1) Deut. 1:19: "Then, as the LORD our God commanded us, we set out from Horeb . . . ."
(Dtr1) Deut. 4:10: Remember the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when he said to me, "Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children."
(Dtr1) Deut. 4:15: You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire.
(Dtr1) Deut. 5:2: The LORD our God made a covenant with us at Horeb.
(Dtr1) Deut. 9:8: At Horeb you aroused the LORD's wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you.
(Dtn) Deut. 18:16: For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, "Let us not hear the voice of the LORD our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die."
(Dtr1) Deut. 29:1: These are the terms of the covenant the LORD commanded Moses to make with the Israelites in Moab, in addition to the covenant he had made with them at Horeb.
* * *
Sinai and Horeb are both names of the mountain where God appeared to Moses and the Hebrews. Yes Sinai is used exclusively by P and J, while Horeb is used exclusively by E and D. Standing alone, that strongly supports the DH. In a separate post, I will examine the traditional Jewish understanding of why this mountain has two names.
* * *
As an aside, the only other place in the Tanach where "mountain of God" is used is in 1st Kings, and it is equated with Horeb: "So he [Elijah] got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God." (1 Kings 19:8.) First Kings is part of the Deuteronomist history, and it is noteworthy that it uses Horeb, not Sinai, like the rest of D.
In Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings, the only place where Sinai appears in in the Song of Deborah, in Judges 5: "The mountains quaked before the LORD, the One of Sinai, before the LORD, the God of Israel." (Judges 5:5.) Scholars believe this song was from an independent very early source, and was inserted into Judges by D.
* * *
Update: see here for a particular problem with J and E.
One commonly cited difference between the sources is the J and P use the term "Sinai" while E and D use "Horeb". Each will be examined in a separate post, as well as traditional explanations for the difference.
"Sinai" appears 18 times in P, 6 times in J, 4 times in R, and 2 times in Other sources. It appears no times in E or D.
The following are all the references to Sinai in the Torah:
(R) Exod. 16:1: The whole Israelite community set out from Elim and came to the Desert of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had come out of Egypt.
(P, R) Exod. 19:1-2: In the third month after the Israelites left Egypt — on the very day — they came to the Desert of Sinai. 2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.
(J) Exod. 19:11: And the LORD said to Moses, "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.
(J) Exod. 19:18: Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire.
(J) Exod. 19:20: The LORD descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain.
(J) Exod. 19:23: Moses said to the LORD, "The people cannot come up Mount Sinai . . . ."
Note: Exodus 19 (the revelation at Sinai) has both E and J interspersed. We will see how persuasive the divisions are when we examine this chapter as a whole. But for now, we are assuming that the source divisions are correct and determining how well that explains the different characteristics of each source.
(P) Exod 24:16: . . . and the glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai.
(P) Exod. 31:18: When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets . . . .
(J) Exod. 34:2: Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai.
(J) Exod. 34:4: So Moses chiseled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning . . . .
(P) Exod. 34:29: When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets
(P) Exod. 34:32: Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the LORD had given him on Mount Sinai.
(P) Lev. 7:38: These, then, are the regulations for the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the ordination offering and the fellowship offering, 38 which the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai on the day he commanded the Israelites to bring their offerings to the LORD, in the Desert of Sinai.
(P) Lev. 25:1 (-2): The LORD said to Moses on Mount Sinai, "Speak to the Israelites and say to them: 'When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the LORD.
(P) Lev. 26:46: These are the decrees, the laws and the regulations that the LORD established on Mount Sinai between himself and the Israelites through Moses.
(P) Lev. 27:34: These are the commands the LORD gave Moses on Mount Sinai for the Israelites.
(P) Num. 1:1: The LORD spoke to Moses in the Tent of Meeting in the Desert of Sinai on the first day of the second month of the second year after the Israelites came out of Egypt.
(P) Num. 1:19: And so he counted them in the Desert of Sinai
(R) Num. 3:1: This is the account of the family of Aaron and Moses at the time the LORD talked with Moses on Mount Sinai.
(P) Num. 3:4: Nadab and Abihu, however, fell dead before the LORD when they made an offering with unauthorized fire before him in the Desert of Sinai.
(P) Num. 3:14 (-15): The LORD said to Moses in the Desert of Sinai, "Count the Levites by their families and clans.
(P) Num. 9:1 (-2): The LORD spoke to Moses in the Desert of Sinai in the first month of the second year after they came out of Egypt. He said, "Have the Israelites celebrate the Passover
(P) Num. 9:5: and they did so in the Desert of Sinai
(P) Num. 10:12: Then the Israelites set out from the Desert of Sinai and traveled from place to place until the cloud came to rest in the Desert of Paran.
(P) Num. 26:64: Not one of them was among those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest when they counted the Israelites in the Desert of Sinai.
(R) Num. 28:6: This is the regular burnt offering instituted at Mount Sinai as a pleasing aroma, an offering made to the LORD by fire.
(Other) Num. 33:15: They left Rephidim and camped in the Desert of Sinai.
(Other) Num. 33:16: They left the Desert of Sinai and camped at Kibroth Hattaavah.
(P) Deut. 33:2: his is the blessing that Moses the man of God pronounced on the Israelites before his death. He said: "The LORD came from Sinai and dawned over them from Seir; . . . ."
* * *
Sinai and Horeb are both names of the mountain where God appeared to Moses and the Hebrews. Yes Sinai is used exclusively by P and J, while Horeb is used exclusively by E and D. Standing alone, that strongly supports the DH. In a separate post, I will examine the traditional Jewish understanding of why this mountain has two names.
* * *
Update: see here for a particular problem with J and E.
I have now prepared five chart showing which verses of the Torah belong to which sources, at least according to Richard E. Friedman and Samuel Driver. I am going to start a (long) series of posts about the particular characteristics of each source. For example, a common argument is that "Sinai" was used by P and J, and "Horeb" was used by E and D. I will start with this example, list each time that Sinai and Horeb are used, and then see how they line up with the different sources. I will have one post on Sinai, one on Horeb, and at least one post on the traditional Jewish explanations for the use of each name.
Remember the Bayes-theorem methodology: I will assume the documentary hypothesis is correct and then see how well it explains the actual occurrences of these words. If it does easily and naturally, it will weigh in favor of the DH being correct. If it appears forced, with ad hoc justifications and explanations, then it will not weigh in favor of the DH being correct. Similarly, for the traditional explanations, I will assume that TMS is correct and then see how well it explains the actual occurrences of these words. If it does easily and naturally, it will weigh in favor of TMS being correct. If it appears forced, with ad hoc justifications and explanations, then it will not weigh in favor of TMS being correct.
The purpose of this introductory post is to think about what specifically I will be looking for when examining the sources. I can think of several particular "issues", and I will update this list as I go. Please feel free to add additional criteria in the comments.
For these purposes, I will assume that the division of the Torah into sources is correct and fixed. The specific issue is given this division of the Torah into sources, how well does it explain the occurrence of the words in the places that they occur.
Criteria Pertaining to Words
1. Obviously, the central issue is how many times does the word appear in its supposed source and how many times in other sources. If the word appears many times in one source, and few or no times in other sources, it is strong supporting evidence for the DH.
2. If the word has a synonym, does a different source use the synonym instead? If one source uses one word, and another source uses the synonym, it is strong supporting evidence for the DH.
3. Is the appearance of the word in a source explained by its meaning? A brief note is in order here. If the presence of a word in a source is explained by its meaning, it is weaker evidence (or perhaps no evidence) of the distinctiveness of the source. For example, P is the "priestly" author. If the P verses were selected because their content involved things that the priests were concerned with --- priests, sacrifices, ritual purity, and so on --- then it would not be surprising to find that the words pertaining to these matters are contained in P. The argument --- at least in this simplistic formulation --- is circular.
In contrast, the disproportionate use of particular words in a source that are not explained by their simple meaning (such as Sinai and Horeb) is stronger evidence of different sources.
In actuality, P is concerned with more than priestly matters, the P verses were chosen on numerous grounds, and other sources (especially D) are also concerned with priestly matters. So a word whose location is explained by its meaning is not irrelevant, but instead is weaker evidence for the DH. The analogous situation in statistics is correlation among the independent variables. Where such correlation exists, more data from correlated variables provides some explanatory power, but not as much as similar data from uncorrelated variables. (There are many limitations and qualifications that I am skipping over.)
4. Is the appearance of the word in a source explained by related words? This is similar to the last point. If two words are frequently used together, the presence of one word is largely explained by the presence of the other word. In such cases, it might be more helpful to thing of the two words together as forming one phrase.
Sunday, April 26, 2009
Here is a table showing all the verses in Deuteronomy and which source they are from. Again, I have used two separate classifications: Richard E. Friedman's from The Bible With Sources Revealed (2003) and Samuel Driver's from Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (9th ed 1913). I have also marked the verses with an asterisk where they differ, and finally included some explanatory notes by Friedman and Driver.
Here's information about the table.
F - Friedman
D - Driver
Diff - Different. * if Friedman and Driver are difference; nothing if they are the same.
Dtr1 - The original version of Deuteronomy that King Josiah had around 622 BCE. (Driver calls this D)
Dtr2 - The additional portions added to Deuteronomy after the Babylonian exile. (Driver calls this D2)
Dtn - a law code that occupies Deuteronomy 12-26. (Driver does not identify this as a separate source.)
J - J
E - E
P - P
R - Redactor
Here's the table.
D: incorporated from independent sources
F and D: Song of Moses was an independent work added by Dtr2
Blessing of Moses was an independent work added by Dtr1
D: to "the top of Pisgah"
D: "which is facing Jericho"